It’s been months since the restaurant world was devastated by forced closures to stem the spread of COVID-19. Now that the ability to re-open dining rooms expected to come next month in Minnesota, the once-communal gathering spaces are being forced to rethink everything about the dining experience. From ventilation systems to host stands to the dish pit to the bar, no corner of eateries will return completely as they once were, in an effort to keep employees and diners safe from the virus.
Shea Design, a local firm known for creating dining rooms like Bellecour, Centro, P.S. Steak, and more, has given deep thought to what can and needs to happen to put eaters at ease, while still making these third spaces safe for employees.
“Restaurant owners are really going back to the beginning, the early days of doing everything to create their restaurants,” said Tanya Spaulding, a principal at Shea, which includes brainstorming to recreate spaces for new functions.
Each space is unique, and diners should be able to clearly see changes when walking through the door. Instead of cozying up to a bar, shoulder to shoulder with other patrons, owners can slide two top tables up to the bar, allowing couples to dine across from each other, but still enforce distance from the bartender and other patrons. If there’s a host stand, it would be easy to designate spacing for those waiting in line, as grocery stores have done. Restaurants can also convert doorways to designate one entrance and one exit to manage traffic flow.
“There were scatter patterns,” said Spaulding, where servers and sometimes chefs would navigate the dining room, making contact with multiple tables and creating what those in the industry call touch points, “[and] now we need paths.” One upside is that days of a crowded waiting area, at least for now, are over.
One advantage for all this moving around is that it’s all happening in the summer, Minnesota’s few months of weather glory. “If you’ve got windows, get those puppies open,” said Spaulding. Some restaurants are converting a window space or a back door into take-out windows to continue the to-go business many restaurants have been cultivating through the shutdown. Doors can be propped open to increase fresh air flow. Patio tables can be spaced out. Some restaurants are looking to reclaim extra square footage outside on sidewalks and in parking lots to make for more expansive outdoor seating. One prime place for that: the valet stand. No one wants to hand the keys to the car over to a stranger just yet. Plus, restaurants can add small tents over tables so that even when it’s raining, people can stay outside.
Certain remodeling trends for the post-pandemic world aren’t ones Spaulding expects to work in the Twin Cities. Shea isn’t advising clients to put up plexiglass dividers or necessarily add UV rays to the HVAC systems. (UV light hinders bacteria growth, so it’s not a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily enough to eliminate the virus.)
Instead, restaurants are advised to strip away as much as possible. That means removing art, throw pillows, tapestries, and candles on the tabletops, and tucking away bartenders’ garnishes. Essentially, take as much away as possible and scrub everything. “Filtration systems are going to need be addressed by tenants and landlords. Clean the vents. Have an engineer to come in, change filters, retrofit more modern filtration systems thoroughly.” Or more to the point: “Get in there and clean the shit out of it. Make it smell like bleach and vinegar.”
Another noticeable difference will be lighting. Where dark used to mean intimate, a little more light bolsters awareness of the tidiness.
Even without all of these adjustments and carefully laid plans, reopening restaurants and dining rooms isn’t as simple as flipping on a light switch. Inventory has to be rebuilt, all that food that was donated or sent home with staff needs to be purchased again. Staff needs to be slowly re-introduced and closely monitored for health. All of this, combined with new design needs, heightens the financial burden placed on many of these small businesses. Even the higher-end places don’t have large amounts of cash flow to draw upon.
While some restaurants will full reopen by the June 1 date, many more are taking a slow and steady approach. Spaulding says some of Shea’s clients are aiming for a mid-July re-opening. Until then, many more will open slowly, by adding takeout where there wasn’t any, or creating online ordering for take-and-bake meals and pantry items. While it still feels for many like the world changed overnight, the road back to any kind of normal is going to be a long one. Until then, restaurant owners are rolling up their sleeves and digging in to do as much as they can to save these small businesses that are such a big part of the American way of life.